An advertisement of Lambretta scooters on the front page of the Sai Gon Moi newspaper in 1954. Photo: T.L.
Xe om (motorbike taxi) is something too common on the streets of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. But have you ever wondered who started the service and when?
I did a little research by reading books and newspapers and found that the word “xe om” had never been used before 1954. Back then, public transport options in the city were rickshaws, cyclos and taxis. Motorbikes were not used for passenger transport.
In 1969, Le Huong, a writer who won the first prize in a journalism contest with a book entitled “The Flea Market near Vietnam-Cambodia Border,” wrote that he saw four new types of vehicles in Go Dau Ha, the flea market in Tay Ninh Province near Saigon in 1967.
The new vehicles were Honda, Suzuki, Mobilette and Yamaha motorbike taxis. Huong wrote: “What a flourishing business it is, making much more money than other services carrying the Americans in Saigon.”
From what he said, I guess xe om was probably first introduced in Saigon after the Americans came to the South in 1965.
The below story told by a Vietnamese pharmacist hailing from Saigon’s District 4 also supports my assumption:
In 1965, a number of Vietnamese people were hired to work at American-run offices in Saigon after the US rapidly increased its military forces in South Vietnam.
They were mostly typists, drivers and car repairmen. They were paid pretty well and could afford to buy motorbikes for themselves.
During the Vietnam War, some offices opened and then some closed. Many of these employees started to worry about their future.
There was this man in his 50s named X, who worked for an American office in the city’s downtown. X had a Lambretta, a line of motor scooters manufactured in Milan, Italy, by Innocenti.
He drove the scooter to work everyday. The bike was comfortable to sit on and suited his tall build.
All of a sudden, his office started laying off people and he lost his job. X had to look for a new job.
During that time, he sometimes visited his former office to see former American co-workers there.
One afternoon, an American guy asked him for a ride to a snack bar in District 4. He joyfully agreed.
Riding pillion, the American guy said his legs felt comfortable on this Lambretta, much more than when he was riding other French or German-made motorbikes.
After they arrived at the bar, the guy gave X some money and thanked him for the ride. He asked X to keep driving him around town during weekends.
X accepted the offer. Suddenly he realized that he could make money by carrying more people around.
He started driving Americans with his Lambretta and even made more money than before.
Some other men who also lost their jobs at American offices followed his lead.
They bought Lambrettas to carry American passengers. Gradually, the community of xe om drivers grew, and they usually parked near two snack bars named Rang Dong and Thuy Phuong.
American civil servants usually hailed xe om to go to bars or small alleys to find acquaintances, girlfriends or drugs. Locals on the other hand usually took taxis, buses or cyclos.
In 1967, Japanese-made motorbikes were imported into Vietnam. They became popular among xe om drivers because they suited the build of Asian people and consumed less gasoline.
As life became harder, many office workers and even police officers became xe om drivers.
After the Americans left Vietnam in 1973, the economy had a downfall. It took a hit on xe om drivers too.
After 1975, as the economy picked up and fuel supply was improved, the xe om business came back.
Vietnamese people started to take xe om as it was convenient for them to go to small alleys and wet markets of Saigon-Gia Dinh.
Editor's note: The article is translated from a chapter of the book “Saigon Chuyen Doi Cua Pho” (Saigon, Stories of a Metropolitan) by journalist Pham Cong Luan. Some parts are edited for clarity.